‘Women’s History Month’: Women in the Air Force
I am sure readers have noticed the unusual number of stories about women during the past two weeks.
One of the reasons — in addition to women just meriting “equal coverage” — is the fact that March is “Women’s History Month.”
According to the Library of Congress:
Women’s History Month had its origins as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress…authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987…Congress…designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.”…Since 1995, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”
It would be a difficult task to summarize or even to make a partial list of the stories of and accomplishments by women that are being written on the occasion.
Thus, I will limit this article to a “gallery of images” and “a few” words about women in the military. On second thought, since even just within the military there are so many outstanding women, it will be only about women in the U.S. Air Force.
And no story of women in the Air Force would be complete without mentioning the first women in the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) and the brave aviation pioneers in the subsequent Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). (The WFTD and WAFS were merged in August 1943, into the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.)
However each and every one of those young, trailblazing women aviators deserve the highest recognition, which they finally received when, in 2009, Congress granted these heroes the Congressional Gold Medal — legislation that President Obama signed on 1 July 2009
Another young WASP deserving special recognition is Hazel Ying Lee, the first Chinese-American woman aviator and also the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military after she joined the WASP. Sadly, she was also the last WASP to die in service to her country while ferrying a P-63 to Great Falls AFB, Montana.
Two other distinguished pioneers in women’s military aviation were Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love.
After organizing and accompanying 25 American women pilots to Great Britain at the beginning of World War II and after assisting there with plans for the newly arrived 8th Air Force, Jacqueline Cochran returned to the U.S and was instrumental in establishing the WASP program and was eventually appointed to direct all phases of the WASP program.
After the war, Jacqueline Cochran continued to participate in aviation. In 1953 she became the first woman to exceed the sound barrier. (She still holds more international speed, distance and altitude records than any other pilot does, male or female.)
In 1971 she was enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio — the first woman to be so honored.
Nancy Harkness Love drew plans and recruited 29 experienced female pilots to join the newly created Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, and became its commander.
Later, Love was named Executive for all WASP ferrying operations.
Love was the first woman to be checked out in a P-51 and became proficient in fourteen other types of military aircraft. She was the first woman in U.S. military history to fly the B-25, flying it coast-to-coast in record time, and was one of the first two women to check out in a B-17.
Another group of brave and dedicated young women who served and sacrificed for their country during World War II were the Army Nurse Corps/Army Air Corps/Army Air Forces flight nurses, nicknamed “Winged Angels.”
Regardless of their Service designation, these flight nurses served in combat and “were especially vulnerable to enemy attacks because aircraft used for evacuation could not display their non-combat status.”
These “Winged Angels” — approximately 500 of them — air-evacuated nearly 1.2 million patients, losing only 46 patients en route. Sadly, 17 of these “Angels” died in combat.
Jeanne M. Holm (below), another woman who served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, was the first woman promoted to the grade of brigadier general in the Air Force in 1971, and, in 1973, the first woman in the armed forces to be promoted to the rank of major general. “Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm is credited as the single driving force in achieving equality for military women and making them a viable part of the mainstream military. She was a champion of diversity and advocate for equal rights for women.”
The general retired in 1975 and died in 2010 after serving three presidential administrations.
More recently, Jeannie Leavitt became the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot. She also became the first woman to take command of an Air Force combat fighter wing, the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, where she commands the wing’s 5,000 active-duty members and 12,000 civilians.
The 45-year-old colonel has a 20-year Air Force career behind her, which includes more than 2,500 hours in the F-15 Strike Eagle, 300 of those hours flying in combat, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. At Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, she also served as commander of a fighter squadron and deputy commander of an operations group.
She is also the mother of two.
Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms is Commander, 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic), Air Force Space Command; and Commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Quite a title, but worthy of a woman who “leads more than 20,500 personnel responsible for providing missile warning, space superiority, space situational awareness, satellite operations, space launch and range operations.”
By the way, General Helms is also an astronaut and, as an Air Force major and a member of the space shuttle Endeavour crew, on Jan. 13, 1993 she became the first U.S. military woman in space. She is now a veteran of five space flights and has logged 211 days in space, including a spacewalk of eight hours and 56 minutes, a world record.
In June, 2012, Janet Wolfenbarger (below) became the Air Force’s first four-star general and took the reins of the Air Force Materiel Command, the largest command in the Air Force with a yearly budget of $60 billion, responsible for the technology, acquisition, test and sustainment of the service’s current and future weapon systems.
Of course, enlisted women in the Air Force also have made and continue to make history.
In 1960, Chief Master Sgt. Grace Peterson became the first female chief master sergeant. She served during both Victory over Europe (May, 7 1945) and Victory over Japan (Aug. 14, 1945) days.
With the ban of women in combat lifted, women are now able to pursue the same combat career paths as men.
For example, female airborne engineers are now taking part in combat training parachute jumps.
In the photo below, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christine Phillips, 820th Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers Airborne from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., has her parachute harness tightened during a parachute training class at Fort Bragg, N.C. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Hughes)
Maj. Nicole Malachowski (below) is the first woman pilot on the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron.
Before joining the team, she served as an F-15E Strike Eagle instructor pilot and flight commander and served a tour in Iraq. She has flown more than 1,900 hours, with more than 1,700 hours in the F-15E and F-16C/D Fighting Falcon.
A few days ago, President Obama nominated Maj. Gen. Michelle Johnson (below) for appointment to the rank of lieutenant general and for assignment to serve as the Air Force Academy’s 19th superintendent.
If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would become the first woman to hold the position.
Johnson is a command pilot with more than 3,600 flight hours in C-141 Starlifters, KC-10 Extenders, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-5 Galaxy aircraft and KC-135 Stratotankers.
While women in the Air Force fly and fight and have led Airmen in war and peace, “for 40 years now, women have also led Airmen spiritually as military chaplains.”
Former Air Force Chief of Chaplains (Maj. Gen.) Lorraine K. Potter (below) became the first female chief of chaplains, retiring after 31 years of service.
As they did during World War II, when 38 WASP and WASP trainees gave their lives for their country, women in the Air Force have continued to make the ultimate sacrifice in every war and major conflict since then.
And, just as the women above were first in many endeavors and achievements, sadly there are women in the U.S. Air Force who have been the first to die in the most recent conflicts.
Staff Sgt. Anissa A. Shero (below) was the first Air Force service woman to die during Operation Enduring Freedom. She and two other Americans were killed when their MC-130H crashed shortly after takeoff south of Gardez, Afghanistan June 12, 2002.
The 10-year Air Force veteran, a seasoned loadmaster, was only 31.
Slightly more than three years later, on Sept. 28, 2005, a young security forces member, Airman 1st Class Elizabeth N. Jacobson (below), became the first Air Force female to die supporting the war in Iraq.
Elizabeth Jacobson and her Army driver lost their lives instantly when a roadside bomb detonated near their vehicle. She was barely 21.
Elizabeth, a Florida native, “envisioned herself rising to the rank of chief master sergeant, but also dreamed of having a family, with two sons, after returning to live in sunny Florida. “
For a great summary of how quickly women’s roles in the Air Force have evolved since World War II, please click here.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos and captions are from DOD sources.
All black and white U.S. Air Force graphics are by Sylvia Saab
Unless otherwise noted, sources for this story are DOD and Armed Forces Press Service releases published here.